How to Battle Spam

The anti-spam CAN-SPAM Act alone won't solve the problem, writes eWEEK guest columnist Helen Roberts.

Im responsible for sending 200 million e-mail messages per month. If you didnt know me, youd call me a spammer. But every message was invited by its recipient.

As head of a large company responsible for sending legitimate e-mail, I support the recently enacted CAN-SPAM Act. However, this anti-spam legislation alone wont solve the problem. The only way to make sure good e-mail gets through and spam goes away is through a combination of industry self-regulation, consumer education and technology.

First, e-mail service providers, anti-spam filter providers and ISPs need to work with organizations such as the E-mail Service Provider Coalition to develop tools and rules that enhance the delivery of legitimate e-mail and eliminate spam.

Second, legitimate e-mailers must adhere to standards that are stricter than those mandated by law. CAN-SPAM requires e-mail to provide an opt-out feature whereby consumers ask marketers not to send them messages. But a strict opt-in feature, in which e-mail is sent only to consumers who specifically request it, is not mandated. E-mailers must require that recipients opt in to their e-mail list before sending messages. The United Kingdom has an opt-in model that has a provision excluding mail from senders with established business relationships with recipients.

Third, marketers should be held accountable for e-mail they send. About 90 percent of spam has spoofed headers, making it hard to identify spammers. We must establish a method allowing marketers to register their e-mail so that ISPs can securely, easily and accurately identify incoming e-mail and associate it with a particular source. Messages that adhere to this method would be allowed in automatically.

Fourth, we need an ISP feedback loop. If the 10 complaints out of 10 million e-mail messages arent sent to us, a consumer will continue to get unwanted e-mail. Equally undesirable, an entire company may be blocked due to a few complaints.

Fifth, consumers must do their part. They must add trusted businesses to white lists. By giving such permission, they can continue to get offers, reservations, confirmations and businesses correspondence. Consumers must diligently apply security updates. Viruses could turn a home PC into a relay for spam.

Finally, CAN-SPAM should be used to prosecute fraudulent spammers, and ISPs should sue spammers that misuse their networks.

If we dont tame spam, we might lose e-mail, one of the most effective communication media in history.

Helen Roberts is chief operating officer of Responsys, a Palo Alto, Calif., provider of e-mail marketing solutions. Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community. Please send submissions to